Drama is a description of what is bad inside of us and the end point of that is hell, a description of a hellish landscape.
This is what David Vann had to say in an interview with GR pal Lou Pendergast. (A link to the full interview is in the LINKS section at the bottom of this review) It will come as no shock then that in his latest novel he presents us with a hellscape, and we see that some of the bad is not content to remain cooped up. In fact David Vann’s Goat Mountain is like Deliverance (without the sex) mated with The Golden Bough, as directed by Terence Malick.
Northern California. Rural. 1978. On several acres owned by their family for many years. A grandfather, father and eleven-year-old boy, accompanied by the father’s friend, Tom (his is the only name we learn), have come for an annual deer hunt. This is to be the boy’s first chance to kill a buck. They spot a poacher on a hill. Sight him through their scopes. Encouraged to look through the scope of dad’s rifle, the boy takes a careful sighting, then squeezes the trigger, instantly killing the unsuspecting man. What are the rules? Should the boy be turned in to the authorities? Should he himself be killed as an unfeeling abomination? Should the deed be covered up? Do they just walk away? Contending with this issue is the motive force in the story. But it is not the only thing going on here.
An idea is the worst thing that could happen to a writer, and as I’ve written these other books I’ve tried actually to not to know where I’m going. I think my ideas are very small and close the story off, instead I try to just focus on the landscape and the character with the problem and just find out what happens.
And yet some ideas manage to find their way in to this work. It is a good thing he eschewed this advice in favor of a bit of wisdom he received from a very accomplished writer.
I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said that every good story is at least two stories. And to me that’s the one unbreakable rule in writing – the only one. That if you just have an account of something, and it’s just an account – like in most people’s journals or blogs or whatever – it’s just sh*t. Like it will never work. I can’t think of a single good work ever that was just one thing – that was just an account of something. What we read for as readers is that second story – the subtext – and the interest of what story will come out from behind the other one. And so you can’t break that rule, as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen it done.
So what else is in here beyond the dramatic tension of a family trying to figure out what to do with their young murderer?
All of my books are about religion and our need for religion…I started as a religious studies major actually. One thing that links all of my works…is how philosophy can lead to brutality
Religion it is, but not just religion, human nature. Our narrator ponders whether killing is in our DNA.
We think of Cain as the one who killed his brother, but who else was around to kill? They were the first two born. Cain killed what was available. The story has nothing to do with brothers.
What we wanted was to run like this, to chase our prey. That was the point. What made us run was the joy and promise of killing.
The story is told mostly as an internal monologue by the boy, as both child and man. While we encounter him as an eleven year old boy, his story is related to us by the adult he will become. Positing a guess that the narrator is speaking from 2012, that makes the narrator 45 or so, just about the author’s age. And yes, Vann is familiar with hunting. I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel. I killed my first deer when I was eleven and I started missing them after that.
Religion here considers the pre-historical
The first thing to distinguish man…there’s not much we can do that is older and more human than sitting at a fire. ..It’s only in fire or water that we can find a corollary to felt mystery, a face to who we might be. But fire is the core immediate. In fire we never feel alone. Fire is our first god.
In the atavistic is there relief from civilization? Vann offers a contemplation of human nature, through the eyes of a monster who feels more connection with ancient hunter-gatherers than he does with any living human.
I wish now I could have slept under hides. I wish now I could have gone all the way back, because if we can go far enough back, we cannot be held accountable.
Is the unfeeling boy really a monster, merely immature, or the core of what it is to be human?
This image of Vann and his father was taken from The Guardian
The bible references here lean toward the Old Testament, and they are abundant. For those who, like me, enjoy trawling for literary references it might be wise to heed Chief Brody’s advice to Quint, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Cain comes in for frequent mention. I noted his name nine times, but there may be more. There is a host of further biblical references, including one in which the boy endures his own Calvary-like hike. Edenic references abound. When we read I slithered my way up that steep canyon, my belly in the dirt, and I refused to be left behind, we might be reminded of Genesis 3:14:
Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
There is a look at Jesus as being guilty of muddying the lines between life and death, the Ten Commandments as being directed against inherent human instinct, and the Eucharist as a way of remaining connected with our bestial nature. Consideration is given to the existence of the devil, and whether we need for there to be some dark agent in charge, anything in charge, because the existential chaos of being is beyond our ability to cope. What are the rules? Who made them and why? And what happens, what should happen, when we break them? There are also parts that reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, as the boy consumes some particularly sulphurous water early on and the group has to pass through a daunting metal gate to enter the place in which the story takes place, among other clues.
This is a book that reaches a grasping claw into your stomach and shakes your guts around before yanking them out. Definitely not a book for those who are uncomfortable with the dark, the violent or the sad. But even with all the brimstone challenging your nostrils, you cannot help but detect the aroma of power and substance in Vann’s harsh new novel. Once you calm down from the brutality of the story you will long consider the subjects it raises.
David Vann very graciously took some time during a whirlwind book tour to answer some questions about Goat Mountain
W – There is a lot in Goat Mountain about the primitive, atavistic drives in human nature. When the boy thinks “Some part in me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end” was he expressing some primitive element within the human character, his personal pathology or something else?
I think it’s both. The book shows a descent that one particular mind takes (as in my novel Dirt, also, and my nonfiction book about a school shooting, Last Day On Earth) but I’m also trying to find shadows of something human and not just peculiar to an individual.
W – How much of what the boy considers, particularly as it relates to a compulsion to kill, reflects your view of human nature (Do you think we are killers by nature?) or was the boy making excuses for his aberrant urges?
I honestly can’t answer any of the big questions about human nature or even individuals. I wrote about my father’s suicide for ten years and yet his final moment still remains mysterious to me. With the school shooter, also, I could put together a narrative that made his final act possible but not inevitable. At the last moment, he and my father could have chosen differently. So I don’t think we’re determined. I think we can kill or not kill, and that many factors push us toward or away. In my fiction, everything is limited to a character’s view always, but I also have basically had or can imagine having all the thoughts and feelings of all my characters, in that they feel possible and believable to me.
W – In an interview you said your books are about “how philosophy can lead to brutality.” But the boy in Goat Mountain appears to have the brutality in him inherently. Can it be that brutality leads to philosophy?
That quote was specifically about Dirt, about the dangers of the New Age movement. But it’s an interesting question, whether brutality is so abhorrent it always has to be covered in philosophy in order for the perpetrators to be able to go on telling the story of themselves. You’re right that the narrator thinks he had an inherent brutality as a boy, or perhaps it was the culture he grew up in (he says children will find whatever they’re born into natural). He’s disturbed by the fact that he didn’t feel bad after first killing, but then this changes with the buck and after that he no longer wants to kill, and he becomes fully human when he kills without wanting to. That’s what I find really disturbing about human killing, when it’s divorced from instinct and becomes abstract and we kill for philosophy or religion or politics or calculated risk.
W – There are several references to a time before god. For example “grandfather did not come from god. I’m sure of that. He came from something older” and “The darkness a great muscle tightening, filled with blood, a living thing already before god came to do his work” and “The act of killing might even be the act that creates god.” The contemporary view of the Hebrew and Christian god is that there was no existence prior. If the boy believes in god how could he believe that there was a time before god?
There has to have been a time before god, because we made him, and it was quite a while before we came up with the idea of making gods. And antimatter is interesting as a concept, because it makes possible the existence of something before anything, the existence of what pulls existence into being. That’s what the grandfather in the book becomes, the thing that makes matter possible. That’s the closest I can imagine to god. Putting a face on god is as stupid as imagining aliens with a head and two arms and two legs. Our images of god are all simplistic like that, too dumb to be able to believe now. I began as a religious studies major and moved on to fiction, which investigates mystery more honestly.
W – Did you have Dante’s Inferno in mind while writing Goat Mountain? If so, were the obstructions the four face getting into their land an echo of the challenges Dante and Virgil face entering the Inferno?
D – I have always wanted to write an inferno, since it’s the natural goal or end of tragedy, as you’ve quoted from me before, and I like Dante’s depiction and also the Venerable Bede’s and Blake’s and McCarthy’s, and there are always obstructions to entering and time it takes to recognize. The inferno is an externalization of a felt landscape within, the shape of our human badness, and the characters have to be put under pressure for a while before they can start to see a mirroring in the landscape. So the book becomes increasingly hellish, as Dirt did. It’s really only in the final section of the novel, when they reach the burn (an area that had had a fire recently), that the architecture of their hell is more fully realized. So they don’t enter gates really but are steadily building.
W – If Goat Mountain completes a holy trinity for you, will you be continuing with religion as a major focus in your next book? What is your next project?
My next novel, which is finished, is titled Bright Air Black and is the story of Medea, set 3,250 years ago, trying to stay close to the archaeological record. It attempts to be a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of her as a destroyer of kings who wants a world not ruled by men. I’ve been wanting to write something about her for 25 years, and I’m fascinated by the time period because it’s the time the Greeks imagine as the beginning and therefore can be considered the beginning of western culture and literature, but it’s actually the end of an older world, the fall of the bronze age and Hittite empire and decline of the Egyptians. Medea worships Hecate and also Nute, an Egyptian goddess, so there’s a continuity with focus on gods and landscape. But Goat Mountain is the end of my books that have family stories and places in the background.
W – Are there any plans afoot for films to be made of any of your books?
I’ve co-written the screenplay for Caribou Island with two-time academy award-winning director Bill Guttentag, and we’re trying now to raise funding for the film. And the French producers Haut Et Court (producers of Coco Avant Chanel and The Class) and French-Canadian director Daniel Grau will be making a film from Sukkwan Island, the novella in Legend of a Suicide.
W – You said in an interview with the Australian Writers Centre:
…what I teach my students is how to read, how to be better readers, and the importance of studying language and literature. And, I use a linguistics approach for talking about style, very specifically talking about what individual sentences do, writing a grammar for a text.
Have you ever considered putting your teaching ideas into a book?
I have thought about that, because I can’t find a textbook that does what I’d want it to do, but I’m focused for now on writing novels.
W – What books have you read in the last year that you would recommend?
I’ve been reading a lot of books, about a book per week, and my favorite this year was John L’Heureux’s new novel The Medici Boy. A great portrait of an artist, an historical thriller, and a depiction of the persecution of gay men in 15th century Florence, it’s a rich masterpiece that I recommend to everyone.
W – What do you do for fun?
Right now I’m on a six-week residency in Amsterdam with the Dutch Lit Foundation, and my wife and I are going to music and museums and restaurants and walking all around the city. Amsterdam is wonderful. We live half the year in New Zealand, where I do watersports almost every day (waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking) or mountain-biking or hiking. And we sail on the Turkish coast each summer. I also play congas and a bit of guitar and I like tequilas and rums.
Thanks, David, for your time and fascinating insights.
The hardcover was released on September 10, 2013, the trade paperback October 14, 2014
Lou Pendergrast’s interview with DV
(Source for “All my books are about religion” quote)
The author’s website – among other things there is a large list of interviews
And his GR page
The Family History Is Grim, but He’s Plotted a New Course – NY Times article on Vann from 2011
(Source for “an idea is the worst thing… quote)
University of Gloucestershire Creative Writing Blog interview with DV from October 10, 2011
(Source for Vann’s mention of Grace Paley)
The White Review with Melissa Cox (online only)
(Source of the “I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel” quote)